Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NC Campus Compact sponsors 20 VISTAs in 2014-2015

Since 2003, NC Campus Compact has sponsored an AmeriCorps VISTA program that places VISTA “volunteers” at member campuses to support community engagement projects that address local, poverty-related needs. In 2014 – 2015, sixteen sites across the state will host twenty NC Campus Compact VISTAs.

Our VISTA Partnership Project involves the development of a key campus-community partnership that serves economically disadvantaged people. The host site may be an office or unit of a member campus, or a local non-profit agency identified by a member campus. All 20 VISTA members will work to address one of the priority focus areas identified by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps programs. The focus areas are education, food security, and economic opportunity.

Collectively, our Partnership Project sites seek to accomplish the following goals:
1. Develop a mutually-beneficial campus-community partnership.
2. Build capacity of community-based programs serving economically disadvantaged children and adults.
3. Leverage resources of higher education institutions to address local community needs.
4. Create sustainable pathways for community engagement of students, faculty, and staff.

Three of our sites will host pairs or teams of VISTAs working to build campus capacity to meet the needs of local children. These child success sites will focus on developing community-wide collaborations that support PK-8 children and families to improve educational and nutritional outcomes.

Short summaries for each of our 2014-2015 projects are below.

Community Empowerment Fund (CEF)
Partner: UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity
Focus Area: Economic Opportunity

The Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) cultivates opportunities, assets, and communities that support the alleviation of homelessness and poverty. CEF is a student-led nonprofit organization based at UNC Chapel Hill and in development at Duke University. CEF’s structure is based on the realization of a dual mission: empowering members to sustain transitions out of homelessness and developing student leadership. At CEF the VISTA will help address the need for 1) relationship- based support that leads to greater economic opportunity for individuals experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness; 2) access to financial services for low-income households, and; 3) a broader, more tightly-woven social safety net for poor households in North Carolina. The goal of this project is to increase the capacity and effectiveness of CEF’s Advocate Program, enabling CEF to strengthen an impactful model of relationship-based student volunteer engagement that promotes real change on an individual level for homeless and near-homeless individuals.

Duke University, Community Service Center
Partner: America Reads and America Counts
Focus Area: Education

The Duke Community Service Center (CSC) serves as a clearinghouse of volunteer opportunities available to Duke students and employees. The VISTA will help the Duke Community Service Center (CSC) further deepen relationships with partner schools through the establishment of a new program - Partners in Print. The Partners in Print program would provide a supportive environment where parents can discover how to help their children learn to read. Partners in Print mentors will conduct evening workshops with parents and children, grades Kindergarten-2nd.  The VISTA will also coordinate complementary CSC events and programs that align with the Partners in Print Program, including National Make a Difference Day, Dive Into Durham spring break, and Dr. Seuss Day. The VISTA will also enhance the planning and implementation of the ARAC K-8 tutoring program.

Duke University, Partnership for Appalachian Girls Education (PAGE)
Partner: Madison County Schools
Focus Area: Education

The goal of the VISTA project is to help girls and young women in economically-distressed Appalachian communities achieve educational success and build futures that include high school completion and college matriculation. The VISTA will engage in a number of activities that will support these goals and help PAGE achieve long term sustainability. She will conduct needs assessment in the communities served, gathering detailed information on graduation and the reasons for dropout. She will help develop a strategic plan for fundraising through grant writing and seeking
private/corporate gifts and help implement that plan. The VISTA will provide support with community outreach through (social) media and direct communication with PAGE students.

East Carolina University
Partner: West Greenville community agencies
Focus Area(s): Education

At ECU, the VISTA will be hosted by the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center (VSLC). This VISTA project will capitalize on the strengths of East Carolina University (most notably its strong mission-based emphasis on service and community engagement) and the west Greenville community, specifically Third Street Community Center and Lucille W. Gorham Inter-Generational Community Center (IGCC). The VISTA will build the capacity for both TSCC and IGCC to address community needs related to education and youth development for K-8 low-income youth and families, provide services to local community members, and strengthen the west Greenville community partnerships and community as a whole.

Elon University
Partner: Alamance County community agencies
Focus Areas: Education, Healthy Futures/Food Security

Elon will host two VISTAs in the coming year. Both VISTAs will be hosted by the Center for Access and Success. The VISTA project will establish a cradle to college pipeline of support services for low-income children and families in Alamance County through a new early childhood initiative to be led by Elon’s Center for Access and Success. The Center already provides a number of educational and college access programs for Alamance County children in grades K-12. The VISTA project would research, design, and implement a new county-wide, comprehensive early childhood effort focused on school readiness and health and wellness of low-income children ages 0-4. The nature of programs that will comprise this initiative will be determined through needs assessment, asset mapping, and collaborative planning with community stakeholders, but resultant interventions will likely rely on parental engagement and education, literacy instruction, and nutritional education. By the end of the 3-year project, Alamance County will have a comprehensive, collaborative early childhood success plan, including assessment protocols; and the Center will sponsor one or more community-based programs that effectively help targeted parents to have their children  ready for entering kindergarten.

Feast Down East
Partner: University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Focus Area(s): Healthy Futures/Food Security

Through the Food Sovereignty Program developed by Southeastern NC Food Systems Program (also known as Feast Down East), the VISTA member will support a number of projects designed to promote and increase access to healthy food in identified food deserts in New Hanover and Columbus County. In New Hanover County the VISTA member will continue to support the Fresh Market and the Rent-A-Farmer CSA produce bags which feature produce from limited resource farmers in nearby Burgaw County. The VISTA member will work in Columbus County, a Tier 1 County, to build healthy habits in underserved communities through the distribution of Rent-A-Farmer CSA produce bags. In addition, the project provides leadership education, nutrition education, and cultural heritage.

High Point University

HPU will host three VISTAs in the coming year. All three VISTAs will be hosted by the Service Learning Program, which is home to the Bonner Leaders Program.

Partner: West End Ministries
Focus Area(s): Healthy Futures
The first VISTA project will continue from the 2013-14 year. This VISTA’s work will take place on campus and in the community with West End Ministries (WEM), a non-profit agency that provides services such as emergency assistance and adult life skill classes. The VISTA will
improve WEM's volunteer coordination and training systems to support the agency's emergency assistance program. The VISTA will also help make healthy food more available to WEM clients.

Partner: Washington St. Project
Focus Area(s): Education
The second VISTA project will take place on campus and in the community with the Washington St. Project – a partnership between HPU and the Hayden-Harmon Foundation. The Washington St. Project is a strategic effort to bolster community resources in the Washington St. neighborhood. The VISTA will improve volunteer coordination and recruitment in line with programs seeking to promote Education for K-8 students in the neighborhood. In particular, the VISTA will develop tutoring and after school programs, with a specific focus on literacy and cultural understanding.

Partner: Washington St. Project
Focus Area(s): Healthy Futures
The third VISTA project will also work with the Washington St. Project, but will have an emphasis on food security and health education. The VISTA will improve volunteer coordination and recruitment in line with programs seeking to promote Healthy Futures. In particular, the VISTA will help make healthy food more available to the neighborhood and increase healthy living educational opportunities.

All three VISTAs' work will serve as a model or pilot project to demonstrate how HPU Bonner Leaders can serve as volunteer coordinators and liaisons with partner agencies. During the course of the year, the VISTAs will help develop trainings and supports for students taking on these roles. The VISTA will also help energize community members to participate in the MLK Day of Service.

Hospitality House of Boone
Partner: Appalachian State University
Focus Area(s): Economic Opportunity

Hospitality House of Boone serves people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness in Watauga County. The goal of the VISTA project is to provide an earned income funding source for Hospitality House, act as a resource for services to meet client needs and to serve as a job skills training program and facility for residents and outreach clients. The VISTA project will build on the capacity of Hospitality House to stay sustainable and to continue impacting the community in positive ways through the increased collaboration with the Appalachian State University ACT Program. It will further increase community awareness and serve as a new way to recruit and
cultivate volunteers to give of their time, talents and treasures.

Partner: UNC-Chapel Hill Communications Studies
Focus Area(s): Economic Opportunity

The Jackson Center is a community-based advocacy organization serving historically African-American and low-income neighborhoods in Chapel Hill through public history, civic media, and community action. The VISTA will support the development of Jackson Center programs that serve the housing and economic needs of local low-income residents. Key activities include the maintenance and expansion of service partnerships with university units (including the Communications Studies department), enhancement of community programs to serve housing needs, volunteer recruitment and coordination, database maintenance, and the development of new neighborhood advocacy networks to pair long term residents with students and community advocates.

Meredith College
Focus Area(s): Education

The three year overall goal of the VISTA will be to support and continue to form the pipeline of services for the Children’s Collaborative of Wake County including home visitation, parenting classes, preschool, afterschool program, Campus Kitchens, neighborhood advisory board, teen job training and healthy outcomes in the Kentwood subsidized housing neighborhood. The three years will follow CCW’s first cohort, Kentwood children birth to three collecting pertinent data for the pipeline of services, and tracking educational, healthy eating, and social well-being progress for
Kentwood children four to eighteen years old.

Partners: Chavis Heights Community Center
Focus Area(s): Education

At NC State, the VISTA will be hosted by the NC State TRIO Program, which is in the division of Academic Programs and Services, the lead office in the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative (RCCC). The VISTA will work on campus and in the community with key partner, Chavis Heights Community Center. Chavis is the main site for the RCCC’s College Center, an effort to deliver post-secondary programs and resources at the community level. The VISTA will coordinate services and programs at the existing College Center site and seek to expand the model
to other partner agencies. The VISTA will continue to catalogue assets at RCCC partner campuses, conduct outreach and track participants, engage volunteers, and coordinate programs.

Student U
Partner: North Carolina Central University
Focus Area(s): Education

Student U is a college-access organization that believes all students in Durham have the ability to succeed. The mission of Student U is to empower students in the Durham Public Schools to own their education by developing the academic skills and personal well-being necessary to succeed in college and beyond. The VISTA project will increase the reach of programming to connect with more students in Student U's target population. The VISTA will also strengthen relationships with local universities including NCCU to increase college student engagement in programming and ultimately educating Durham’s youth. This project will increase Student U's organizational capacity by creating a sustainable system that can be followed for years after the completion of the VISTA project.

Focus Area(s): Education

At UNCA, the VISTA will be hosted by the Key Center for Service-Learning and Community Citizenship, which serves as a hub for campus/community engagement efforts. VISTA work will take place on campus and in the community with Open Doors of Asheville, a local non-profit serving at-risk youth through education, enrichment, tutoring, and mentoring. The goal of the project is to strengthen a mentoring partnership between UNC Asheville and Open Doors that improves educational outcomes for low-achieving K-12 students. Partnership will increase both Open Doors’ capacity for improving the educational success of students living in poverty and UNC Asheville’s capacity to offer meaningful experiential education opportunities and training to students. This project also will increase capacity of additional community organizations to utilize UNC Asheville students as well as UNC Asheville’s capacity to prepare student volunteers for
community-based experiences.

Focus Area(s): Economic Opportunity

At UNCG, the VISTA will be hosted by the Office of Leadership and Service-Learning (OLSL), which serves as a catalyst for the development of experiential curricular and co-curricular leadership and service-learning initiatives. VISTA work will take place on campus and in community with the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), Greensboro’s day center for people experiencing homelessness. The first year of the project focused on food security with the development of IRC’s Community Garden. The second year of the project focused on economic opportunity with particular attention on volunteer management and financial literacy. In the final year, the VISTA will continue to
refine volunteer management and economic opportunity outcomes.

Wake Forest University
Focus Area(s): Education, Healthy Futures

WFU will host two VISTAs in the coming year. Both VISTAs will be hosted by the Office of Service & Social Action. Both VISTAs at Wake Forest University will build capacity within existing programs, connect resources, and implement new initiatives in order to address the community-identified needs of increasing educational success and food security in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

The goals of the education access project include: increasing school readiness and academic engagement of at-risk elementary and middle school children in Winston-Salem, and enhancing partnerships with community-based programs, including Saturday Academy and after-school, STEM-related programs at El Buen Pastor Latino Services and Ashley Elementary School, supported by the NERD network.

The goals of the healthy futures project include: increasing access to food resources and nutritional information for low-income children and families, and enhancing partnerships with community-based programs, including Campus Kitchen delivery sites.

Western Carolina University
Focus Area(s): Healthy Futures

The goal for this VISTA project is to strengthen relationships between Western Carolina University, the Community Table, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program (ASAP) and the Local Food and Farm to School Education Program; to build capacity at the Community Table and ASAP/LFFSEP, and to raise awareness about food insecurity in Western NC. The project aims to provide the Community Table and ASAP/LFFSEP with the food resources necessary to meet their customers’ needs, to train and manage volunteers, and to enhance publicity and outreach efforts. The project is also intended to increase awareness of food insecurity issues on campus and in the wider community.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moving Forward Looking Back: the 2013-14 Cohort

As the close of the 2013-2014 VISTA term fast approaches, 17 North Carolina Campus Compact VISTAs spread across the state each work diligently to leave their projects on the firmest of footings. Under their watch, programs have flourished, resources have been gathered, and volunteers have been mobilized to fight poverty with the power of higher education! Now, they are sharing capstone presentations, writing final reports, reflecting back on their year, and looking ahead to the next one.

As part of the close of their year, the 2013-14 VISTA cohort gathered together for a day of service and reflection on July 11. The group began at the Greensboro Children’s Museum clearing weeds, raking, mulching and chicken wrangling in the Edible Schoolyard. Under the expert tutelage of Edible Schoolyard Manager, Justin, the VISTAs had the Schoolyard looking much more presentable by noon.

We then traveled to the campus of UNC Greensboro, where the Office of Leadership and Service Learning provided us a delicious Chipotle lunch and space in the Faculty Center to spend the afternoon looking back at our year. We started off with a slideshow, and moved on to talk about lessons learned from the year. Many expressed the desire to learn more about political systems and policies that engender poverty, while others shared a new understanding about the importance money and access to it, plays in creating pathways out of poverty. Another popular theme of the VISTAs’ age, real or perceived, and how it influenced other peoples’ opinions of VISTA-led programming, also surfaced.

The loudest and most heartily felt reflection though, was that their year was worth it. No matter how many obstacles lay in their path, they overcame them one by one, and they did it by strengthening communities.

A prime example of triumph in the face of adversity is VISTA Brittany Johnson's experience. Brittany was promised a building to begin a Thrift Store Enterprise program for the Hospitality House of Boone at the beginning of her year, but after the building deal fell through, she spent most of her year fundraising, getting the word out, and writing a Thrift Store business plan. Along the way, she met every single resident who came through the building, and made tons of community connections. After a year of uphill work, Brittany finally secured a building, but also secured many new Hospitality House allies. The Thrift Store is now scheduled to open this weekend!

Brittany’s story is just one of seventeen, but each VISTA will tell you the same thing. The work was hard and the salary wasn’t great, but the lessons learned, the programs created, and the people met along they way, made each VISTA’s year an invaluable experience.

Five VISTAs enjoyed their VISTA year so much, they plan to stay on for a second term! Jess-Mara Jordan will return to UNC Asheville’s Key Center to continue developing a mentoring program. Will Jones at Western Carolina University will put his green thumb back to work revitalizing not only WCU’s community garden, but it’s volunteer base to maintain, harvest, and distribute food to local food pantries and soup kitchens. Brittany Johnson at Hospitality House of Boone will dive head-first into the new Thrift Store to design job and volunteer training programs for sustainable management of the store. Elizabeth McIntosh will begin her second term as she finishes up the PAGE (Partnership For Appalachian Girls’ Education) summer camp program. Elizabeth continues to build the organization by creating supplemental year-round programming, building strong partnerships in the region, and continuing the process for PAGE to become an independent 501c (3). Last but not least, Anna Mahathey will be joined by two new VISTAs at High Point University. Anna will work with senior Bonner Leader Students and begin to develop food security programming at West End Ministries. If history is any indicator of the future, we can also expect an MLK Day extravaganza next year!

As for the rest of the cohort, several are still deciding their next steps. However, the successes of their VISTA year are strong evidence that they will succeed at anything. Even without the final Quarter's numbers, the VISTA impact is clear:

$77,512 - in cash/grant resources generated
$46,789 - in non-cash resources raised
3,685 - volunteers mobilized  
23,681 - hours of service performed by volunteers

Christina Hunter will finish her second VISTA year at Queens University of Charlotte, but will stay on as the Assistant Director for the Center for Active Citizenship. She also hopes to attend graduate school for a Professional Masters of Business Administration at Queens.

Dalton Hoffer will wrap up his service term at UNC Pembroke but will stay in the Office of Community and Civic Engagement as the new Assistant Director.

Takira Dale, currently at Duke University, will stay in Durham and work for Teach for America's Eastern North Carolina region. She will act as Coordinator of Special Events and Donor Engagement.

Jacob Lerner, currently at the Marion Cheek Jackson Center, will also be close at hand working as a field organizer with Aim Higher Now NC in Wake County. He will be educating people about the current climate of Public Education in the state legislature.

Camille Smith, currently at NC State, will travel slightly further afield to work with Stop Hunger Now, an international hunger relief organization, as the Assistant Program Manager at the National Capital site in the Washington, D.C. metro area. This new position allows her to combine passions in education and world hunger!

Devin Corrigan, currently at UNC Greensboro, will enroll in a second term of VISTA service as the Development and Communications Coordinator at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation. She will also be holding lots of babies, as she will be much closer to her family in NYC!

Perhaps the furthest flung traveler will be Shifra Sered, currently at East Carolina University. She will be a Shatil Social Justice Fellow with the New Israel Fund, an organization that safeguards human rights in Israel.

In the next few months Sarah Cohn, currently at the Community Empowerment Fund, will be working on a science outreach project with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham. She will also continue working on a bilingual curriculum for elementary-aged students of all backgrounds to learn more about evolutionary biology and related sciences.

Ariel Mitchell, currently at Lenoir-Rhyne University, plans to attend graduate school out West. She is scheduled to take the GRE at the end of the summer.

Bevelyn Ukah will move back to her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to continue the righteous grassroots activism she took part in at Guilford College with the Elimu Empowerment network.

Anna Donze, currently at Wake Forest University, will begin working as the Volunteer Coordinator at Samaritan Ministries on August 11th.

All of our VISTAs worked tirelessly to fulfill the North Carolina Campus Compact mission to fight poverty with the power of higher education. They planned Hunger and Homelessness Awareness events, MLK Days of service, met NC mayors, and led ASB trips near and far. So many of their successes can't be measured, but by reviewing quarterly increases in volunteers recruited and resources secured, we can see a sliver of their huge accomplishments. It is clear that they will continue to live lives of service in whatever endeavors they pursue.

As they move on to the next step in their careers and lives, we wish them great and humbling adventures!

Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
-- Maya Angelou, excerpted from "On the Pulse of the Morning"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let’s Talk Taboo: My experiences with race and poverty as a NC Campus Compact VISTA

In June and July, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Shifra Sered
NC Campus Compact VISTA at East Carolina University and the Third Street Community Center

Shifra (Left) with ECU student volunteers.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program was founded in 1965 as “a national service program designed specifically to fight poverty in America.” Throughout our VISTA Pre-service Orientation (PSO) we discussed theories of poverty and were asked to think critically about how to alleviate poverty in our communities. As VISTAs we are asked to build the capacity of organizations to alleviate poverty and are assessed on our ability to do so. Both VISTA and North Carolina Campus Compact have provided us with online and in-person trainings on topics ranging from utilizing social media in our work to creating asset maps for our community.

Throughout PSO and my year of service, I have been struck by the lack of intentional conversation about race in trainings provided by VISTA and NC Campus Compact. As shown by a study completed in 2012, a staggering 34 percent of African-Americans in North Carolina were living in poverty compared to 13 percent of the white population. As race and class are deeply intertwined, I believe that it is counterproductive to talk about poverty in North Carolina without evaluating the role of race. Focusing on one while ignoring the other can, at best, make VISTA's service less effective and can, at worst, run the risk of perpetuating systemically racist power structures.

I currently work at East Carolina University as the VISTA in the Volunteer and Service-Learning Center, as well as the Third Street Community Center (TSCC), a local faith-based community center. ECU and Third Street are both located in Greenville (Pitt County), a city still reconciling a past of deeply entrenched and often racist social norms. As recently as 2013, a court case was brought against Pitt County for school assignments that effectively re-segregated certain school districts. There are 12 members on the board of the Pitt County school system, but only 3 are African-American despite the fact that almost half of Pitt County school children are African-American. This unequal racial distribution, perhaps itself an effect of long standing racist attitudes, is a possible reason why governing Boards such as the Pitt County School Board allows current segregationist policies to stand and in fact continue to pass such policies.

The Third Street Community Center is located in “West Greenville,” an area more defined by its population than its physical boundaries. In fact, it seems to me like no one can decide the physical boundaries of West Greenville, but we can all agree it refers to the black and poor neighborhoods on the west side of the city. When I first moved to Greenville, I was warned to stay away from West Greenville as it was “the bad side of town.” Others refer to it euphemistically as the “inner-city,” despite the fact that Greenville is not a particularly large city. The area of West Greenville, as we try to vaguely demarcate it, is almost exclusively African-American. Poverty rates are as high as 100% in some neighborhoods. Third Street Community Center is very much dedicated to working within West Greenville. That said, the staff (including myself), the original board and the building owners of the Center, are all white. I believe it is important to openly recognize and discuss the potentially problematic implications of an all-white community center staff serving a black community. I fear that we, as a center, are stripping away the agency of the local community by insinuating that outsiders are the only ones capable of making profound, positive change. I fear we are continuing the widespread cultural narrative of the “white savior” who has the ability to “save” a community (see Teju Cole for more on the “White Savior Complex”). I believe this discussion about the ways that race informs our work at TSCC could be fostered with more intent. I do not mean this as an indictment of the community center and I believe that the center has the potential and the desire to do a lot of good in West Greenville. However, if we, as a community center, ignore the role that race plays in the perpetuation of poverty in West Greenville, then we run the risk of preserving the inequality that we are committed to fighting.

From my observations during my year of service, I believe that VISTA and NC Campus Compact need to intentionally include topics of race as part of our training and on-going dialogues around poverty as race heavily informs my work in the community. I believe that it is not enough to attempt to alleviate the effects of poverty; we must also target the root causes of poverty, which include racism. VISTAs do great work by building the capacity of organizations, strengthening tutoring programs, building responsible homeownership programs and creating nutrition programs. However, when schools in African-American neighborhoods are underfunded, racist housing practices lead to segregated neighborhoods, and places like West Greenville continue to be “food deserts,” providing communities with VISTAs is not enough. Our service needs to be evaluated as part of a larger system in which racism, both direct and indirect, is a contributing factor. Without acknowledging the way that racism shapes the experience of the communities we serve and the ability of the VISTA to effect positive change, we cannot create truly sustainable solutions to systematic and complicated issues.

I want to end by saying that I have learned tremendously from my year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. I believe that AmeriCorps does important and necessary work that, on an individual level, can make all the difference in someone’s life. I believe it should continue to provide volunteers to strengthen non-profits and engage with communities. However, I also believe that the work of AmeriCorps is not done in a vacuum and must take into consideration the ways structural inequalities work in our communities, in our organizations and within AmeriCorps itself.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

There is something special about Southeast Raleigh

In June and July, North Carolina Campus Compact will be publishing articles written by our VISTA members. These pieces give readers access to first-hand experiences and reflections of VISTAs serving throughout the state. We are excited for them to share their perspectives on community and service with us! 

Please note: Any opinions expressed on the VISTA VIEW blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions, or policies of North Carolina Campus Compact, the AmeriCorps VISTA program or the Corporation for National and Community Service.

By Camille Smith
NC Campus Compact VISTA at NC State University and the Raleigh College Center

When most people think of the Triangle area of North Carolina they think of tobacco road basketball rivalries, an exciting academic hub full of research and resources, great barbeque, and southern hospitality. When I became a Raleigh transplant four years ago, I quickly learned that this area is so much more than that. Raleigh truly is a magical place rich with history, creativity, charm and a small town feel with big city thinkers. I had been in Raleigh for two-and-a-half years before I was exposed to Southeast Raleigh. As a student at NC State, I had an opportunity to explore the different parts Raleigh via several internships in town, events, and social outings, but had never spent extensive time in the southeast area.

As I progressed through college, the reality that I was a student who had beaten the odds to get into college became more evident to me. I was one of those college students with limited resources and it was a miracle that I had the opportunity to attend an institution as full of resources as NC State University. My parents could not afford to send me to college so when I was in high school; I did everything in my power to ensure that I had a scholarship out of my hometown of Anderson, South Carolina. I worked hard to keep my grades up while excelling in volleyball. Like many minority high school students, I believed that my only ticket to college was through a sports scholarship. Luckily, I earned one at a historically black college, Virginia Union University. Although I loved my university, I decided to transfer at the end of my freshman year because I realized that what I wanted out of college was not offered at my university.  In 2010, I began as a sophomore at NC State University through a generous financial aid package and the grace of God. Almost immediately after my arrival to this behemoth state-funded school, I realized that students like me were rare and far between. For the first time in my life, I felt completely out of place and overwhelmed with a school environment.  I then began to reflect on my life, and how I got to this point. If it were not for the several mentors, teachers, counselors, friends, and family, in my life I would not have made to college nor would I have graduated. If it was not for their continuous support and guidance, I would not have seen it through and I would not have capitalized on the opportunities offered at NC State University. They showed me that, despite my background or upbringing, I not only belonged in college but could succeed.

Chavis Community Center
My experiences in life led me to my AmeriCorps position at NC State University. My title is Program Coordinator for an initiative created by Raleigh area higher education institutions, businesses, and community partners (also referred to as the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative) entitled the Raleigh College Center. We believe that by promoting higher education access to under-represented youth in our community (specifically in Southeast Raleigh), that the cycle of poverty can be significantly reduced. I had the privilege of splitting my time between both NC State and the Chavis Community Center. My intention was to pay it forward to other youth who were like me, who did not have all of the resources, but who needed that push or exposure to knowledge on making it to a higher education institution.  What I have learned in this process is much more than I have expected!

A Brief History of Southeast Raleigh

First, I want to say that the Southeast area, is Raleigh’s best kept secret. The potential that lies in this region is just now being re-realized by city administrators, who are beginning to pour money and resources into this community, including the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative.  When I say that the potential of this area is being “re-realized”, I mean that the residents of Southeast Raleigh understand their history and share a rare camaraderie that is deeply rooted and culturally aware, and it seems as though leadership in Raleigh has taken notice. I have been so fortunate to work in what I deem this community’s hub- The John Chavis Memorial Park and Community Center. Before I continue, I believe that it is only appropriate to give a brief history, for one to wrap their head around the amazingly talented children that I work with, who have been born and raised in this community.

Longtime Chavis staffer
and local resident Larry Wells
John Chavis Memorial Park is the largest community park located within walking distance to downtown Raleigh. Based on the history of this park, it is my belief that there is no better home for the Raleigh College Center! The park was established in the late 1930s by the city of Raleigh to serve the recreational needs of African-Americans during the Jim Crow laws. Prior to desegregation, Chavis was the largest recreational facility that was open to blacks from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, with amenities such as a large swimming pool, playgrounds, a football field with seating, a baseball field, a carousel,  and picnic shelter.  The history that is embedded in the community center and the grounds around it is rich and frequently celebrated and echoed throughout the center on a daily basis. At least once a week I meet a new person that shares their John Chavis Park story. When I think of someone who has seen the transformation that the neighborhood has gone through, I think of twenty year Chavis Community Center staff member, Larry Wells, who grew up in the neighborhood and has frequented the park since 1961. In my time as a VISTA Larry’s insights about what makes Chavis what it is today, and his age-old wisdom have helped me put my volunteer duty into perspective. When speaking with other patrons of the Jim Crow generation, their eyes brighten up when bringing up memories of riding on a children’s train that toured the park, or learning to swim in what was then, the only pool that blacks could use in the region. It was a civil rights hub, where the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized marches from the park to downtown Raleigh. Ultimately, Chavis served as a safe and happy space when our nation was going through the civil rights movement.

Once desegregation was achieved, Chavis facilities virtually became frozen in time, and according to Mr. Wells, in the 1970s and 1980s the Southeast neighborhood began to experience higher crime rates.  He remembers attending high school at Ligon (now known as Ligon Middle School) when it was a thriving neighborhood in the early 1970s then returning later in the decade and becoming wrapped up in what the neighborhood had transitioned to. This once thriving historically black neighborhood surrounding John Chavis Park, was now becoming an alienated sector of Raleigh, with limited resources, and a growing pool of untapped potential. As Bob Geary wrote in a 2011 Indy Week article:

“Southeast Raleigh is a quarter of the Capital City. About 85,000 people live here, but they're not all the same. It's one of the fastest-growing parts of Raleigh, but some neighborhoods are in decay. It has a reputation for crime. There is crime. And poverty. You don't have to look hard to see it. But even in the worst parts of Southeast Raleigh, there's hope. In most of Southeast Raleigh, there's very little crime and the neighborhoods are middle-class—middle-class and still predominantly black.”

In local residents and Chavis staff members like Mr. Wells, I view this “hope” that Geary describes. There is a felt consensus in Southeast Raleigh for a yearning of growth and re-making it into the gem that it once was fifty years ago.

Fast forward to 2011

Southeast Raleigh is a hotbed for growth and opportunity, and several organizations have been created to uplift it and its residents. In 2010 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began to show interest in alleviating poverty in Southeast Raleigh. Businesses, community organizations, and all six colleges and universities in Wake County began to come together to rise to the challenge. Our community banded together to gain a $1.2 million dollar grant to invest in human capital through raising awareness about college access.

Cue the birth of the Raleigh Colleges and Community Collaborative and the subsequent establishment of the Raleigh College Center in 2012!

Raleigh youth visit Wake Tech, a member of the collaborative.
I serve as the second AmeriCorps VISTA in the growth of this initiative. My duties have been to expand our college access/youth serving network, collaborate with community partners, and act as Program Coordinator for the Raleigh College Center hosted workshops at the John Chavis Community Center.  What has been the most enriching part of this experience has been the ability to speak candidly with other youth serving individuals and youth in our community. Their perspective of Raleigh is both refreshing and innovative. In my opinion, these people are the true heroes of the future of our community. The youth that I work with are so vivacious and full of ideas for the future. Their savviness in communicating via technology is equally a generational barrier and an efficient method of communication and collaboration in the future. From my experience, I have found that the youth in southeast Raleigh, like many all over the country, have a separate and fresh way of
communicating with one another, but in some cases lack the confidence and tact that is required in speaking to others in person and in a professional setting. The Chavis Community Center provides a safe space for the teens in the area to build confidence through verbal communication, recreational activities, and by articulating their dreams at the Raleigh College Center.  The initiative and its partners have just begun to scrape the surface of the untapped potential of our community’s youth.

The College Center's 2nd Annual Etiquette Dinner
Within the past six months we have had an opportunity to connect with community partners such as Youth-Thrive, The WELL (Wade Edwards Learning Lab), Neighbor to Neighbor Outreach, YMCA Y-Achievers, 4-H, Habitat for Humanity, and more. We have collaborated with our partners to be innovative in the way that we expose our students to college. We have done everything from college visits, free test prep, personal finance courses, a local college fair, application readiness workshops, and even an etiquette dinner where college students taught our students the important of etiquette and
manners in today’s society!. 

The VISTA program with NC Campus Compact has allowed me to experience so many opportunities, that I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced at this point in my professional career. In the process of planning and implementing programs for the Raleigh College Center, I have been able to connect with professionals in higher education, local government, local educators, and the nonprofit field. Together, each of these people has contributed to the well-being of the students and families of Southeast Raleigh. My grandmother once told me that it takes a village to raise up a child, and the people whom I have encountered in my year of service serve as the village that has indirectly impacted the youth. Because of them, I was allowed to gain professional skills in public speaking by being asked to conduct college access seminars and speak in front of city council on the 2014 Mayor’s Day of Recognition for National Service. I have been able to network with Raleigh youth-services leaders at Youth-Thrive Training events. I even was asked to serve on a 40,000 Book Drive in partnership with Wake County Public School System and Wake Up and Read, where we raised well over our goal with 65,000 books!
Camille and other AmeriCorps members took part in the
Mayors Day of Recognition for National Service.

All of these experiences have shaped my viewpoint of Raleigh.  Although Raleigh is not short of its flaws and historical obstacles, it is quickly changing, and on the cusp of what many believe to be an urban explosion full of growth and even more opportunity. From my observations, I believe that it is extremely crucial to never forget the historical scars that have been left on the people of Southeast Raleigh, and use what has happened in this community to grow forward and in a positive manner.

As I move on to other places and other opportunities, I will never forget how my experience with poverty in Southeast Raleigh as an AmeriCorps member has been one of the most transformational seasons of my life. When I return to this community to visit, even after the current John Chavis Memorial Park and its Community Center transforms into the rightful community hub of the downtown Raleigh area, it is my hope that this community is still laced with a strong sense of history and strength that it has today. Being a VISTA in Raleigh during this time has opened my eyes to how I want to be a leader in my professional career and I have this amazing community to attribute to that.